This post explores the nature of homonyms as a word class. A definition and examples are given before moving on to consider polysemy, homographs and homophones, which are all part of the same word class family.

Homonyms: what are they?


Pure homonyms are words that have the same spelling and pronunciation, but different meanings (denotation). For example:

  • You can sit on the bank (noun) of a river and you can visit a bank (noun) to pay your bills.
  • You might plant (verb) a tree and then buy some plants (noun) from the garden centre.
  • You can have drive (adjective) or determination, and you can also drive (verb) to the office.
  • You can fish (verb) all afternoon, but may never catch a fish (noun).
  • A cat will stalk (verb) its prey, while a stalk (noun) is also part of a flower which connects it to the root.

Homonyms and Polysemy

Some words can be homonyms (identical spelling & pronunciation), and as their meanings are so closely related we refer to this as polysemy. For example:

  • The root of a tooth, the root of a tree and the root of a problem.
  • The head or a person, the head of a stream and the head of a department.
  • The mouth of an animal and the mouth of a river.
  • The foot of a child, the foot of a chair and the foot of a mountain.
  • The branch of a tree and the branch of a bank.

Homographs: what are they?

Homographs are words that have the same pronunciation, but different spellings and meanings. For example:

  • I need to go and buy two pints of milk.
  • Their shoes are over there by the table.
  • He wants a stable large enough for his four horses.
  • Where should she go to buy a pair of new shoes to wear for the interview?
  • Have you read that novel with the red cover?

Homophones: what are they?

Homophones are words that are have the same spelling, but different pronunciation and meaning. For example:

  • I read the Guardian newspaper every morning, but yesterday I read the Independent.
  • He missed the train because the mist was too thick to drive to the station.
  • He shouted aloud that the protest should be allowed.
  • Cats often pause to clean their paws.
  • It’s hard to say whether there will be any change in the weather.